Mason-Dixon Brunswick Stew: 52 weeks of personal genealogy and history

Week 5: Favorite Food. What was your favorite food from childhood? If it was homemade, who made it? What was in this dish, and why was it your favorite? What is your favorite dish now?

Hands down, my favorite childhood food is my favorite adult comfort food–Brunswick Stew.  Mmm, mmm!  My mother made this delicious chicken stew on cold winter days, and it played a central role in that season’s high holidays.  If we entertained on Christmas or New Year’s this was the special entrée.  In spite of growing up Virginian, I went my entire childhood believing this dish to be my mother’s signature, super-secret recipe.  As an adult I learned that Southerners claim it as their own and that my mother, a transplanted Yankee from Greene County, Pennsylvania, challenged that claim.  My conjecture?  At our country’s birth, Greene County was the hinterlands of Virginia’s frontier, with Pennsylvania and Virginia squabbling over possession.  In fact Mason and Dixon’s line runs through those rolling hills.  Seems to me that Brunswick Stew is just like that line, a place where North meets South, and Yankee meets Southern in recipes passed down generation after generation.

Once upon a time I tried to duplicate my mother’s stew recipe; of course, it never tasted quite right.  Rather than admit failure and deprive myself of this pleasure, I tried a North Carolina recipe discovered in a Christmas-gifted cookbook.  This receipt produced a darn good facsimile of my childhood memory, and I made my own Brunswick Stew, on cold wintry nights, at the end of a trying week, or for company-filled holidays.   Gradually I got up the nerve to ask my mother for tips and tricks, which I added to my own process.  Now when I stew up my chicken, the thick, savory dinner is a true Mason-Dixon dish.

Mason-Dixon Brunswick Stew 🙂 feed as many or as few as you want, just adjust quantities.  This variation feeds a gang of six, with seconds, and you still have some leftover for lunch.


  • 1 (5-6 pound) chicken (you can also use a combination of chicken and pork or squirrel 😉
  • 3 onions, sliced
  • 2 (10 ounce) bags of frozen baby lima beans
  • 1-3 quarts of canned tomatoes
  • 2 (10 ounce) bags of frozen corn
  • 3 pounds potatoes, peeled, cooked and coarsely mashed with lots of butter
  • herbs: parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, salt, pepper; bay leaves
  • 1-3 stalks of celery, cleaned, cut in thirds
  • olive oil

Soak your chicken in salted water for 15 minutes, pat dry.

Rub the chicken with olive oil and herb paste.  Roast chicken at 350* until the drumstick wiggles when grabbed, juices run clear or your meat thermometer registers 170*–roughly an hour and a half.  Baste every so often to keep the chicken from drying out.

Take chicken out of oven and cool, then take the meat off the bone and set aside.  Reserve the pan drippings for your stew.

Prepare your chicken stock by placing the chicken carcass in a stock pot and cover with water.  Add a couple of stalks of celery, bay leaves and herbs if you want.  Simmer for 30 minutes.  Take ALL the bones out, along with the bay leaves and celery.

Add the pan drippings to your chicken broth, then add the roasted chicken, the tomatoes, onions, and  lima beans.  Cook for about an hour.

Add the corn and cook for another 1/2 hour.

Thicken the stew with the mashed potatoes until the consistency suits you.

Throughout the stewing, taste and season–pinch by pinch–with salt, pepper, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme until you like the effect.  (Some recipes call for adding Worcestershire sauce instead of your own mix of herbs.)

I love pepper and thyme, so my stew is heavy on those herbs.  I don’t like a lot of tomatoes, so I use just one can.  I do love lima beans and sometimes add more, as I do with the mashed pototoes.  Every cook produces her own signature taste.  So–there you have it! Served with hot cornbread dripping butter and honey, with a side of ‘slaw, this Mason-Dixon Stew is guaranteed to fill bellies and comfort souls!

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